For nearly three years, Vina Nadjibulla waited for the phone to ring.
Nadjibulla’s husband, Michael Kovrig, was arrested in China, along with another Canadian, Michael Spavor, in December 2018.
Their detention was widely seen as political retribution for the arrest of Chinese telecom executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver at the request of the United States.
On Sept. 5, Nadjibulla organized an event in Ottawa. Hundreds marched through the nation’s capital, marking exactly 1,000 days since the two Michaels were arrested and calling for their release.
“That is what I focus on every day when I start the day and wonder what I can do today to bring that closer to reality,” she said before the event. “That is the mission. The goal is to get him on a plane to Toronto.”
Then, a couple of weeks after that march, Nadjibulla’s phone finally rang.
“It’s been 1,020 days of working for this moment,” she said. “The moment is here.”
On Episode 11 of China Rising, we’ll hear directly from Nadjibulla’s husband, Kovrig, about what’s it like to be back home in Canada after nearly three years in a Chinese prison.
On Sept. 24, Huawei executive Meng suddenly struck a deal with U.S. authorities and was released from custody and allowed to return to China. Just hours later, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Kovrig and Spavor were also freed and on their way home to Canada.
That frantic climax sent shockwaves around the world.
“It came out of nowhere,” said Jacco Zwetsloot, a friend of Spavor’s in Seoul, South Korea. “I really didn’t expect in my wildest dreams that it would happen.”
News of Kovrig and Spavor’s release took even veteran Chinese political analysts by surprise.
Beijing had long insisted the charges against the Michaels were not connected to Meng’s case. For appearances’ sake, most expected that the Chinese government would look to put some distance between the two cases, by not releasing the Michaels right away.
But that’s exactly what they did.
“I think the timing surprises a lot of people, including myself,” said Lynette Ong, a China expert with the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.
“I think it just goes to show that the two sets of cases are very much interrelated and politically motivated.”
In the early hours of Saturday morning, on Sept. 25, Kovrig and Spavor landed in Calgary.
From there, Kovrig travelled onwards to his family home in Toronto.
Kovrig stepped off the plane and into the arms of his wife, Nadjibulla. For the first time in a long time, she was smiling ear to ear.
“To all Canadians who have been with us every step of the way — we were just telling Michael that everybody walked for him on September 5th and were sharing stories from these past thousand days — thank you,” Nadjibulla said.
I met the Kovrig family a few hours after his arrival at their home in Toronto. Kovrig sat on a bench on their front porch, flanked by Nadjibulla and his sister Ariana Botha.
“I’m just still learning how to breathe again because I feel like I’ve been holding my breath for almost three years,” Botha said.
Kovrig appeared freshly shaven, wearing a crisp white dress shirt tucked into blue jeans. He appeared thinner than in photographs taken before his arrest, which had often appeared on the news. But he seemed full of energy and life.
“I feel great. Frankly, I feel fantastic,” Kovrig said.
“It’s such an immense relief to be back in Canada, to be here at home with my family again. I feel like I’m on top of the world and I’m just immensely grateful to everyone who has been working so hard for these over a thousand days to bring both me and Michael Spavor home. It’s fantastic. Thank you so much.”
He said he didn’t know much about what was going on outside his small prison cell, but was overwhelmed by the support he received from Canadians.
“I didn’t know most of what was happening on the outside world, but knowing that so many Canadians and others were aware of our situation and sending messages of support really meant a lot to us. So thank you, everybody, for that,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to the future with my family now.”
Julia and Kevin Garratt know the feeling. They were detained in China under similar circumstances in 2014 and remember what it was like to hug someone for the first time in years.
“I just think about the power of touch,” Julia said. “No one’s on your side when you’re all alone in (prison). And even the people that you see are not really on your side. And all of a sudden you have people on your side that can wrap their arms around you and hug you.”
But after that initial high from the homecoming, the Garratts also remember the road to recovery.
“They’re not going to just bounce back and jump into life again. It doesn’t happen in a day,” Kevin explained.
“There’s a lot of release of tension that takes months to be released because they’ve been living under this tension and this situation for so long. Unfortunately, they’ve gotten used to so many things living under the stress and the tension there. And it’s just going to take a long time for their body to reset.”
Even though the two Michaels and Meng are free, the damage done to Canada’s relationship with China will likely endure, according to Ong.
“I think the damage is definitely, if not permanent, it is certainly not temporary,” she said, pointing to public opinion polls in many Western countries, including Canada, which show the vast majority of Canadians now hold an unfavourable view of the Chinese government.
“I don’t think we are in the same position as we were pre-2018. Even though the two Michaels are now home, we have moved into a new different era.
“The Canadian government is aware of what sort of power China is; it is a rising power, but also an increasingly belligerent and confident one. It is not hesitant to act unilaterally. And the onus is now up to the (federal) Liberal government to come up with a coherent China policy, as to how we have to deal with this rising power in the near future.”
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